Mightier than the sword

Greek Australians have used their stories of migration and identity to shape Australian literature, but what does the future hold for ethnic literature?

The voice of the migrant experience, to the voice of the next generation on identity and language has been prevalent in the Australian multicultural life through literature. From the poetry of Antigone Kefala and Dimitris Tsaloumas writing about longing for their motherland, to Christos Tsiolkas writing about the struggle between the first generation and the second on identity, the experience is read and observed by the wider community through words. But what does the future hold for the third and fourth generations, and what will they write about?

“I would say the future looks good, looks bright,” says publisher and author Helen Nickas, of Owl Publishing.

“Greeks are good storytellers, they are interested in writing and I think we will see more but I just don’t know what exactly the third generation will be doing because the other two generations had a distinct scene to talk about – the experience, the nostalgia or the experience here in Australia.”

Nostalgia and missing the mother country, describing the migrant experience and what it’s like to leave your home, language difficulties experienced were dominant themes in the literature of the first generation. Poetry was a dominant literary style of the first generations. As most grew up with being taught poetry in schools in Greece over prose fiction, the first generation felt they could write poetry comfortably to express their feelings.

“The second generation write about the experiences of what it’s like to be the offspring of immigrants, identity issues, language problems, the prejudices, discrimination, being called names,” Ms Nickas tells Neos Kosmos.

But for the forthcoming generations, the children of the second, we wait with bated breath for their literary stylings, and what their focus will be on. What will be their voice?

“The third generation coming up will be writing about different things, their own experiences, and we have yet to see because they are still quite young, and they aren’t publishing books yet so we need another decade or so before we see what they will write about,” she says.

“I see that for the next few years there will be quite a number of books produced in the Greek language,” says author Kyriakos Amanatides, OAM, who says the first generation are still publishing books in an attempt to leave a strong legacy for future writers, but adds as time goes on, the prominent language used by Greek Australian writers will be English, for very obvious reasons. English is now the mother tongue for subsequent generations.
The reason the future looks bright for Greek Australian authors is because they will be publishing books in English that will be readily accepted by wider literary circles, explains Ms Nickas.

“The second generation write in English and they get published by Australian publishers out there in the wider Australian community,” says Ms Nickas, whereas the first generation were – at times – forced to self-publish. They wrote the book, edited the book and published it themselves and relied heavily on book launches and the community to ensure their book was well received.

“The bulk of the books are sold at the book launch,” says Mr Amanitides. He says these book launches can attract anywhere between 50 to 150 people, depending on the author, and the author can sell up to 100 books at the launch alone.

“It is the launch that is the most important thing these days,” he adds.

Associations such as the Greek Australian Cultural League – of which Mr Amanatides was once president and is now on the editing committee – has book launches nearly every week for first, second and third generation writers, and acts as a solid foundation to assist the marketing and publicity of the book. And in their publication Antipodes, they publish a comprehensive list of books published by Greek Australian authors. The Hellenic Writers’ Association, which is responsible for the periodical O Logos – which celebrated its 20th anniversary two years ago – also prints a list of published works in their journal. Associations such as these are the pillars for Greek Australian authors to communicate their works to the Greek and broader community.

“It’s more through social circles that books in our community circulate, and not through book shops,” says Mr Amanitides.

In an attempt to breathe new life into books that were published in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s through to now, Mr Amanatides – with the assistance of the Greek Consulate in Melbourne – set up a library in the office of the consulate in 2009. The humble library houses Greek Australian authors who have written everything from fiction, non-fiction, poetry and more. Currently, the collection plays host to more than 650 books, and continues to grow to this day. And the library is set to prosper even more once it becomes a permanent feature of the Greek Community of Melbourne’s new building. The history, and heart and soul of the Greek Australian literary world will be housed in The Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture, smack bang in the heart of Melbourne’s Greek precinct Lonsdale Street.

Whilst studying at Melbourne University, Ms Nickas decided to do her research on Greeks in Australia, with a focus on literature. Having studied Australian literature it gave her the inspiration to see what the Greek migrants were doing in terms of writing – what were they writing and what style did they adopt. In the mid ’80s, she did her masters on four Greek Australian female writers. And by the early ’90s, Ms Nickas was fast becoming an authority on Greek Australian literature. It was 1992 when she set up Owl Publishing. Though her publishing house is small, and focuses on 4-5 authors, and even though the list of books published is small, it’s 25 or so books that would not otherwise have been published. She also translates books for migrant writers and is a bilingual publishing house as well.

“I wanted to create bridges between us, the Greeks, and the wider Australian community, so a lot of the stuff I published was in English because I wanted their work to reach a wider audience,” she says.

Book launches of Greek Australian writers are happening nearly every weekend in Melbourne, but whereas the first generation hosts them at community halls, or through associations such as GACL, we are seeing the second generation go mainstream. From writers such as Christos Tsiolkas having book launches at Readings, for example, or poet Koraly Dimitriadis choosing venues such as Brunswick St Bookstore or Polyester – two bookstores that would appeal to her style and demographic.

“The two sides don’t really come together very often; they are quite distinct,” explains Ms Nickas.

“It’s just a natural way to go about things as the first generation wouldn’t be published by the mainstream as they write in Greek.”

An area that both Ms Nickas and Mr Amanitides see as being developed by the next generation of Greek Australian writers are biographies and the telling of their family history. Ms Nickas uses author Zeny Giles as an example who in her books chose to tell not only the story of her family’s migration from Kastellorizo, but cover the whole history of Kastellorizians coming to Australia in the ’20s and ’30s.

“The migrant’s experience is a very strong and painful experience in people’s lives and people will probably want to tell this particular story,” she says, “so maybe the third generation might want to go back and look into the family history, and may write biographies of their grandparents, what life was like for them because most of the grandparents couldn’t write anyway.”

Mr Amanitides agrees, saying that many of the next generation may choose to write biographies of prominent Greek Australians in the same way he did with influential Greek Australian Stathis Raftopoulos.

“In the last few years, people have been interested in writing biographies of Greek Australians who excelled themselves in those aspects of the Greek Australian community,” he says.

Either way, for a country as small as Greece and an adopted nation as vast and wide as Australia – our voice through the written text remains loud and proud … and will continue to do so.